Breaking barriers: The crucial role of women’s sports in Canada

by | May 23, 2024 | Opinion

2024 has been a year to remember for women’s sports. 

From the creation of the PWHL (Professional Women’s Hockey League) to the WNBA’s increase in viewership, we are, without question, witnessing the beginning of a golden age for women’s sports, especially in Canada. 

The 2024 WNBA Canada Game, hosted in Edmonton, was the latest installment of the explosion in popularity of leagues such as the PWHL and WNBA. A sold-out crowd watched the Los Angeles Sparks, led by Canadian national team star Kia Nurse, win a nail-biter over the Seattle Storm 84-79. 

Nevertheless, this was far from an ordinary preseason game; it was an opportunity for the WNBA to grow women’s basketball internationally and lay the groundwork for the league’s potential expansion to Canada. 

After selling out the inaugural WNBA Canada Game in 2023 at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena in two days, Edmontonians showing up and packing Rogers place to capacity proved once more that women’s sports have a bright future ahead in Canada.

“Canada wants a WNBA team,” Kia Nurse said to the media before tip-off. “That’s been very evident. It’s been something that fans have been screaming at the top of their lungs for.” 

“So showing up and showing out here [in Canada]…gives the league a little bit of an incentive to say, hey, they are showing you they want one [a team].”

And after two successful sold-out Canada Games, the WNBA announced on May 10 that it would expand north of the border to Toronto in 2026. 

The move prompted several strong emotional reactions from those in the Canadian sports media industry. Professional athlete and host Caroline Cameron said “maybe the most exciting part of the WNBA coming to Canada is seeing where it takes the generations ahead,” in a tweet on May 10.

The WNBA’s success in Canada is just one example of the rise of professional women’s sports in the past few months. 

Look at the PWHL: five months after dropping the puck in their first game, the PWHL has broken the attendance record for a women’s hockey game six times, with their latest crowd of 21,105 at Montreal’s Bell Centre setting the global record. The first match between Toronto and New York on New Year’s Day reached 2.9 million viewers–over 800,000 more viewers than the final game of the 2023 Stanley Cup Finals.

Soccer has seen enormous growth, too. The announcement of Project 8, a Canadian professional women’s soccer league set to begin play in 2025, means three major sports leagues will have commenced operations in Canada over two years.

And while more professional women’s sports is a great thing for all sports fans, the real triumph is what the debut of these leagues does for female athletes in college or university. For them, playing sports professionally is more attainable than ever. 

“I mean, for me, it means the world. I think that’s what it’s all about,” said the 2nd overall pick in the 2024 WNBA draft, Cameron Brink, on what it means to her to be a role model for young women who may have dreams of playing in the WNBA.

“At the end of the day, I grew up watching Lisa Leslie, Breanna Stewart, Sheryl Swoopes, all those players were super important to me,” she said.

“So, you know, you can only hope to have what they’ve given to the game.”

And for the sole Canadian in action that night, the opportunity to bring professional women’s basketball to her home country was something she could never have imagined growing up. “Honestly. It was really special to be here,” Kia Nurse explained in the post-game press conference. “We talked about this place as a hockey city. Rightfully so…but there’s a real love for basketball in this part of the country.” 

“To be able to be in an arena that is filled for the WNBA on Canadian soil is not something that you put on your dream board as a kid around my age, because we could barely get WNBA games on television… so to be in this situation now and to see how things have changed and how it’s propelling women’s sports forward, and women’s basketball particularly in Canada, it’s really, really special.”

Sports are for everyone; they can change someone’s life from professionals to amateurs, and the ability to pursue a career as an athlete shouldn’t be restricted due to the lack of opportunities.

When I think of women’s sports right now, I think of growth. This wasn’t always the case; 10 years ago, some skeptics questioned whether leagues like the WNBA would ever become popular. But today, the “Caitlin Clark effect” is in full motion as she starts her WNBA career, the recent (and successful) WNBA expansion into Canada and the tremendous success of the PWHL, the next generation of women’s athletes are pushing forward, expanding the game and capturing audience’s attention all at the same time. 

So, while this recent run of triumph is an outstanding achievement, it is also just the beginning of a bright future for female athletes worldwide and in Canada. And it would not have been possible if not for leagues like the WNBA and PWHL, which are pushing the boundaries and collaborating to make dreams of playing women’s sports professionally a reality. 

Fans packed the stands at Roger’s Place to watch the WNBA game in Edmonton. Photo by Geono Aloisio

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